The mesmerizing movements of jellyfish have inspired researchers to design all sorts of things, from mechatronic jellyfish that function as autonomous robots to artificial jellyfish built from rat cells and silicone. Now scientists have built a jellyfish-inspired microchip that can capture cancer and other rare cells in human blood.
A jellyfish captures floating food particles with its long tentacles, which are equipped with repeating patterns of sticky structures. Researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston used that design concept to build a microfluidic chip coated with long strands of repeating DNA sequences that bind to specific proteins on cancer cells as they float by in the blood.
Capturing cancer cells in the blood stream can provide key information about how a tumor is responding to treatment, and a device like the jellyfish chip could be used not only in diagnosing and monitoring cancer, but also for capturing other rare cells in the blood, such as fetal cells, viruses and bacteria, the researchers reported yesterday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy Sciences.
Other microfluidic devices that rely on antibodies or engineered nucleic acids have been developed in the past with a similar intent, but have failed to capture large entities in the blood, such as whole cells. The new jellyfish-like device can grab those cells, and more of them. The key was making the three-dimensional DNA strands long, like tentacles, and arranging them in a herringbone pattern inspired by the repeating patterns of sticky structures on the jellyfish. And unlike previous methods, the device can also easily release the cells so that they can be studied in the lab.
In addition to diagnostic applications, the device could also be used therapeutically. "What most people don't realize is that it is the metastasis that kills, not the primary tumor," says Jeffrey Karp, an author of the paper and a bioengineer at Brigham. "Our device has the potential to catch these cells in the act with its 'tentacles' before they may seed a new tumor in a distant organ."
Go jellyfish. Maybe researchers should spend more time at the aquarium staring at these hypnotic marine animals.
Image: Brigham and Women's Hospital
Emily Waltz is a contributing editor at Spectrum covering the intersection of technology and the human body. Her favorite topics include electrical stimulation of the nervous system, wearable sensors, and tiny medical robots that dive deep into the human body. She has been writing for Spectrum since 2012, and for the Nature journals since 2005. Emily has a master's degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and an undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt University. She aims to say something true and useful in every story she writes. Contact her via @EmWaltz on Twitter or through her website.